The Button Under His Desk

Tintoretto’s Susanna and the Elders, 1555–6

Could someone please invent a sexual harassment app? I mean an app for keeping track of the revelations about sexual misconduct, sexual predators, and hardcore sexual abuse that, to borrow a phrase from His Girl Friday, keep rolling out like oranges? You’d need something that would allow you to enter not only the “alleged” event and when it had “allegedly” happened, but also when it had been revealed. And it would need a feature that would let you sort through them like photographs and put them into categories and groups. Misconduct or harassment? Harassment or assault? Assault or rape? Is what this guy did criminal or merely creepy? Does it rise to the level of serial predation? Is this scumbag someone who actually ruined people’s lives? Made people’s fate and professional future dependent on his sexual demands and proclivities? Or just another crypto-creep who secretly likes to be naughty and knows he can get away with it?

You’d need a tagging feature, too, for notes on whether there had been corporate collusion and how the “alleged” perpetrator had tried to conceal his tendencies, and another for how he’d responded to the revelations of his conduct. Did he deny it? Attribute his behavior to drunkenness or folly? Did he seek to minimize this or that incident? Express surprise that anything he’d done had bothered anyone, least of all women, for whom he has nothing but the deepest respect?

Did he try to deflect blame, or implicate his background or professional milieu, the culture, the climate of the Sixties, all of society? Did he strike a high moral tone, express bewilderment, and suggest that, though he really can’t imagine why some women seem to feel about him the way they do, his downfall is part of a new but important zeitgeist? Or did he just own up to having been a shit and say that the main point here is to foster the ongoing dialogue, keep these stories coming, and focus on the women who are just now beginning to feel they can come forward and talk about what they went through?

Something like this might make it a bit easier to look at these cases individually and figure out what we think about them all: about the difference between rape, grabbing a woman’s breasts or genitals, rubbing your penis up against her (the technical term for this, I’m told, is frottage), trying to shock her by masturbating in front of her, using a button installed under your desk to lock the door to your office so that you can assault her in privacy, or walking up to a female subordinate in a bar — just steps away from co-workers but out of their sight — and, when she covers her mouth in shock after you’ve covered it with yours, saying, “I’ve always known you’d do that,” instead of, for example, “Oops,” or “I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me!”

It isn’t a calendar, I’m positing, which is for things that may happen in the future, or a diary/journal, which is for more sustained writing. It’s something more complex, this thing that I find myself longing for as I watch the news and go through piles and piles of all the articles and commentaries on sexual misconduct that I’ve printed out over the past few weeks.

I want an app that would let you note down not just what someone was accused of doing but also your reaction when you heard: Was it surprising? Did it break your heart? Make you fear for the future of the Democratic party? Did it lead you to rethink your attitude toward someone’s entire body of work or question his professional legitimacy because it called into question every single moral posture that — as a satirist-comedian or as a statesman or as a social and cultural commentator — he’d ever adopted? (Argue yes or no, and explain your answer.) Did you gasp and say to yourself, “Good god!” or “Oh no, not him?” Or did you just nod or shake your head because it really wasn’t that much of a surprise?

You’d need a timeline feature, too, but more of that in a moment.

The week of Thanksgiving was when I began to feel the need for this byzantine creation — years before Wednesday, when the story about NBC news anchor Matt Lauer broke — and it was Thanksgiving Day that I started trying to imagine what designing such a thing would entail. I wanted to be able to organize my turbulent thoughts about Senator Al Franken and Leeann Tweeden — the news anchor for KABC radio, in Los Angeles, whose story about her experience performing with Franken on a 2006 USO tour to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan — first threw us all into a state of social, ethical, political, cultural and moral confusion.

I didn’t want Franken to be a bad guy. I never thought him particularly funny or talented as a comedian, but I thought he was a great senator. And I loved watching him go after Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. I’m fanatical about getting rid of Jeff Sessions. Before all this sexual harassment stuff started coming out, my chief preoccupation had been criminal justice reform. I wasn’t reading Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies, I was reading The Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko’s eye-opening book about the militarization of the police. I was obsessed with how Sessions has been setting back the causes of police oversight-and-accountability and the decriminalization of poverty.

Franken, with his performer’s heightened sense of language-abuse-for-purposes-of-evasion, seemed like a godsend. However he was going to get Sessions, even if it was for perjury, Franken was going to get him — and maybe Trump, too. I actually asked myself which was more important, that or getting rid of sexual harassment.

I’d been relieved and impressed by a statesman-like apology Franken had made, after a first embarrassing one. I think it was that second apology that led to a conversation with a friend whose brother has worked in comedy about whether perhaps the very qualities that make comedians so disgusting — that “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke” attitude — was what made someone like Franken able to go after Sessions the way he had at all those Senate hearings.

I’d read Kate Harding’s Washington Post article “I’m a feminist. I study rape culture. And I don’t want Al Franken to resign.” I’d also read Michelle Goldberg’s Times op-ed column, “Franken Should Go” from the day before, arguing that the Senator’s fall would be a shame but no meaningful strategic loss to the Democrats. I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. I’d agreed with Eric Lach, the New Yorker’s deputy news editor, who in a piece posted the same day as Harding’s (“Al Franken, Disappointment”), talked about how Franken is “a unique figure in Democratic politics: a famous name who is able to bridge the populist and centrist wings of the Party, is friendly with Republicans, and is passionate about constituency work.”

I agreed with Harding and Lach. All the same, something about each of their articles gave me pain. Lach was suitably hard on Franken regarding the Senator’s first public apology. (“Within hours of Tweeden’s story being published, Franken’s office issued the kind of statement he would have laughed out of the room during a Senate hearing.”) What made me wince was the way Lach described Tweeden herself.

On Thursday, a model turned radio-news anchor named Leann Tweeden published an essay describing how Franken forcibly kissed her while they were rehearsing a skit during a U.S.O. tour, in 2006.

A model turned radio-news anchor. Presumably no one would dream of referring to Lach himself as “a fact-checker turned news-editor.” To do so would suggest that he was somehow a fraud, not really a professional, that he didn’t deserve to be doing what he was doing or had managed to transition into his current position via questionable or underhanded means. “A former fact-checker,” one might say with perfect dignity — just as all the other news outlets and magazine articles referred to Tweeden as “a former model” — because everyone has to start someplace, after all. (My guess — and I’m just spit-balling here — is that Tweeden wasn’t poised to get her start in media as a fact-checker at The New Yorker.) It reminded me of Tina Brown on Harvey Weinstein. (“I knew he was sleazy, but you don’t report someone to the police because they like going out with starlets….”)

In the case of Harding’s article, what was problematic was the presentation. It appeared under a snapshot from that 2006 USO tour, but not the one of Franken groping or pretending to grope Tweeden’s breasts while she slept. The photo that accompanied the article showed Tweeden standing grinning onstage behind Franken, and it was captioned, “Leeann Tweeden: Franken ‘violated’ me.” The juxtaposition of that picture with the scare quotes in the caption seemed clear: “If what happened bothered her so much, why is she onstage smiling?” Neither the choice of art nor the decision to put quotation marks around the word violated were Harding’s, of course, but this was The Washington Post, for God’s sake.

What is this mysterious, unconscious need to denigrate or discredit women who come forward with accounts of sexual misconduct, to minimize their stories?

Because — and here’s where that need for a timeline comes in — at the very moment those articles were being written and edited (they came out Thursday and Friday before Thanksgiving week), the responsible, respectable newspaper and magazine sites were falling all over themselves in a rush to right the wrongs done to former President Clinton’s accusers, Juanita Broaddrick and Monica Lewinsky.

They came pouring out: recantations, jeremiads, and self-recriminations on how we Democrats had dealt with the Clinton sex scandals. It started with Caitlin Flanagan’s wonderful “Bill Clinton: A Reckoning” in The Atlantic and Michelle Goldberg’s Times op-ed (“I believe Juanita,”), both published on November 13th, and snowballed from there: Matthew Yglesias in Vox on the 15th (“Bill Clinton Should Have Resigned”); Jennifer Steinhauer in Times, on the 16th, reporting on how Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democratic Senator of New York (“who holds Hillary Clinton’s former seat,” the article pointed out) was now saying that the husband of her predecessor “should have resigned the presidency after his inappropriate relationship with an intern came to light nearly 20 years ago;” Ross Douthat in the Times on the 18th (“What if Ken Starr Was Right?”).

Yet, while this was going on — and just in the wake of Joe Biden’s lame apology to Anita Hill for having mishandled the Senate hearings that probably allowed a serial harasser to be appointed to the highest court in the land — Twitter had begun to seethe with attempts to discredit Leeann Tweeden: the report of a book deal she’d supposedly signed with right-wing media outlet Sinclair Broadcast Group (there isn’t any book deal or any evidence that Sinclair even publishes books); a video clip that purported to show Tweeden had no problem performing with Franken onstage (it’s a different woman in the clip). A barrage of outraged tweets and rumors from an outfit called democraticunderground.net and elsewhere. Real nutcase stuff.

And then there was the not-so-nutcase stuff: NBC posting a letter, signed by 36 women who had worked with Franken at “Saturday Night Live” and were willing to attest to the fact that they certainly had never had any trouble with him; Howard Fineman of the HuffPost, tweeting from his verified Twitter account that, among other things, he and @alfranken had “been family friends for decades” and the latter “adores his wife & family.”

The SNL letter, which was posted the Friday before Thanksgiving, was truly bizarre, so awkwardly written you had to either read it as a brilliant coded message or conclude that none of the seven women identified as writers among its signatories had had any hand in creating it. It was odd, too, that whoever was behind the letter (NBC?) had managed to find only 36 staffers and former staffers to sign it — out of how many women who would have crossed paths with Franken in the years he worked at SNL?

I count at least 20 other women, on a Wikipedia page that lists SNL writers and performers alone, whose tenure there overlapped with Franken’s and who didn’t sign the letter. Joan Cusack, Janeane Garofalo, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Sarah Silverman, and Julia Sweeney are among them. Was this letter not circulated to them?

But all this is beside the point. It’s irrelevant that Franken didn’t aggress or grope some women who worked at SNL, just as it’s irrelevant that he didn’t aggress “some former staffers” in his political milieu who came forward to speak in his behalf the day before Fineman did. It’s irrelevant that Fineman has often dined with Franken and his family. And to suggest that it is relevant is to say that Leeann Tweeden and her little story aren’t important, that they’re an inconvenience.

Leeann Tweeden’s story is important, though — if nothing else because it demonstrates something I think people have yet to figure out about sexual misconduct. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are two different things. The assault is the act. The harassment is what happens between people before and after.

Tweeden’s account of her experience with Franken is textbook stuff. It isn’t just about him grabbing her head and sticking his tongue in her mouth, an incident which Franken has said he “remembers differently.” It’s about how he behaved before and after: how he used his authority as a more experienced performer to insist (repeatedly, and against her protests and better judgement — born of common sense and a grown-woman’s savvy) that an onstage gag-kiss for a USO sketch needed to be rehearsed. It’s about how she finally gave in (…okay, fine, we’ll rehearse it…) just to get him to, well, stop harassing her. And it’s about how through the remainder of that tour, instead of trying to make Tweeden feel it was safe to be alone with him, he treated her with subtle hostility and contempt. For six weeks. In close confinement. In war zones. When she couldn’t get away from him. Why? Because she’d pushed him away and told him never to do that again.

If you want to know how much what Franken did to Leeann Tweeden bothered her, watch the video clip of her telling her story for the first time in public to her co-host, Doug McIntyre, at KABC. Don’t read her statement, watch the clip.

You’ll see how Tweeden’s attitude toward Franken changes over the course of her story. She goes through three stages — “the three stages of reminiscence,” I call them — that women tend to exhibit when they tell these stories. First is benign neutrality, as she explains the setup, the situation (who Franken was in 2006 and the physical and social realities of traveling with a bunch people on a USO tour); then comes the common-sense I-can’t-believe-my-own-story astonishment, as she describes Franken’s behavior leading up to the incident — the prelude to the kiss, as it were; then comes the rage, sometimes naked, sometimes suppressed, as she describes the aftermath.

This is not someone exaggerating a petty incident or trying to get attention. This is someone trying to piece together what happened — because she’s still trying to figure it out. Because it made no sense to her; it didn’t fit with her own ethical frame of reference. That’s what you see in the faces of all the women who tell these stories.

The worst part of Tweeden’s is the part that was taken out of context in accounts of her account. What she says made her “feel violated all over again” was what happened with the photo she hadn’t known was taken. We’ve all seen it. (I’m linking there to an exquisite essay by The Atlantic’s Megan Garber, by the way.) Tweeden is asleep, dressed in a flak jacket, which accentuates her womanly virtues, and Franken is reaching out toward her breasts and looking toward the camera leering.

You can look at that photograph and imagine how posing for it might have been a spur-of-the-moment impulse. But watching the clip, you’ll have to ask yourself how it wound up at the very end of a series of photos on a souvenir disc from the tour — placed there so that when Tweeden got home it would be the last thing she saw and remembered. That took planning and malice. It means that even if Franken didn’t arrange it himself, he had to have treated or talked about Tweeden in a way that made someone else want to.

Tweeden’s story offers a classic example of the way men behave when they have misbehaved, how they pout and sulk and seek to punish the women they feel have rejected them, simply because those women exerted their free will and said “no.”

I have no wish to get into a smackdown with Howard Fineman. I think he’s a genuinely nice guy. I think he thinks Franken is a genuinely nice guy. What Fineman needs to understand is that publicly proclaiming the niceness and family devotion of someone who may have sexually harassed or assaulted someone else is collusion. It’s becoming a part of a system that has kept women from being believed about sexual misconduct for centuries. Because these men are all family men; it’s part of their weaponry. (I discussed this in an essay I wrote about being sexually harassed by a married colleague at The New Yorker in the 1990s — who remains at The New Yorker, I might add.) These are all nice guys — to someone. In fact — and I’m sorry to have to tell Fineman this — being nice guys is quite often their stock in trade.

It’s part of how they manage to survive as predators. They’re endearing, charming and ingratiating in person, self-effacing in public. And when they’re not being self-deprecating, they make a show of being upfront about not being nice guys, jesting about their flaws — how egotistical they really are or how arrogant or how mercenary and narcissistic — a double bluff that’s calibrated to be funny and at the same time bespeak candor and self-awareness. It’s a stance. It’s part of the m.o.

Now that several stories similar to Tweeden’s have emerged, Franken is pulling the “I’m just a warm, over-enthusiastic guy who crossed a line” routine. He’s playing into the archetype of “the clueless male,” a phenomenon that Lili Loofbourow of The Week discussed in “The Myth of the Male Bumbler,” one of the most trenchant pieces of social criticism since Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp.

That’s disappointing. And Franken’s gone back to not knowing how to apologize. That’s disappointing, too. His Thanksgiving Day apology to Tweeden suggests that he doesn’t really understand why she was upset with him, he thinks she’s being a little unreasonable, but hey, whatever!

Should Franken step down from the Senate? [The remainder of this paragraph has been updated.] I think since 2:40 pm on Wednesday, December 6th, when The Atlantic posted Tina Dupuy’s account and analysis of her own experience with Franken, that’s inevitable. I also think Franken’s a jerk. I think his background and upbringing may have led him to look down on Tweeden, whose boyfriend (now-husband) is an Air Force pilot and whose father served in Viet Nam. I think they may keep him from being able to see that women who go on USO tours are doing something more than a bit risky.

They’re going into harm’s way in two senses, using their sexuality to entertain people who get shot at for a living. There’s a very thin line between that and allowing yourself to be demeaned. For three quarters of a century female entertainers, artists, and personalities have traveled to war zones and — like Marlene Dietrich, like Judy Garland, like Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable — used their sex-symbol or girl-next-door image, pretending to be a little flirty, a little too-friendly, a little bawdy and risqué, in order to elicit laughter from people who may die tomorrow and can’t fraternize with each other and are far from home.

It bothers me that Al Franken doesn’t understand that that’s what he was demeaning with that photograph. But hey, whatever.

Is Franken the same as a Roy Moore or a Harvey Weinstein? Of course not. Are the people who make excuses and apologize for him enablers? Of course they are. Are they as bad as Roy Moore’s and Harvey Weinstein’s and Matt Lauer’s enablers? Absolutely.

I no longer care why nice married men who are devoted to their families target women, why they feel spurned or dissed when those women resist their advances, rebuke or reject them. I don’t care why it makes them angry and vindictive and feel the need reassert their power by spoiling something for the woman—whether it’s a memory, an experience, or a job. Yes, these men and their acts need to be sorted and differentiated — Crime or peccadillo? Harassment or assault? — but stop talking about witch-hunts. Witches don’t exist. Sexual harassers and rapists and pedophiles do. We need to examine the similarities among them as well as the distinctions between them. We also need to examine the structures and assumptions that have allowed men to get away with sexual harassment and assault for so long.

Why, when women say they have been aggressed or abused, is our default response to think the worst of a woman while giving a man the benefit of the doubt? Why don’t people go on the alert as soon as a man starts talking about a woman in that way — suggesting with a facial expression or a raised eyebrow or a throw-away word or two that she’s “bitchy” or “difficult” or “unstable,” as Franken probably did with Tweeden? That’s a tell, and everyone should know this by now. It’s something that should make alarms bells go off and everyone go on tilt — ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.

That’s why women don’t come forward. They’re afraid of how easy it is for the men who’ve aggressed them to make them seem undesirable to have around. Like an inconvenience. Tweeden talks about that too in that KABC interview: how she only spoke about her experiences with Franken privately, at the time, because she didn’t want to be perceived as difficult, as a trouble-maker. She didn’t want to be an inconvenience.

Neither did a lot of women at NBC.

Tweeden’s story has value because it’s paradigmatic and also because it’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that a grown man would behave the way she describes Franken behaving. And yet there’s the evidence of that photograph and the way she tells her story. Implausibility is almost always a part of the pattern of this behavior. If you look at the accounts of the 17 women who claim that the President of the United States aggressed or assaulted them — accounts that have weight, legal heft, because the women spoke about them at the time — what you’ll see is a pattern of implausibility. Some aspect to the story makes it difficult or impossible to believe — where it happened, when it happened, the presence of a husband or a lot of mothers or a mother-to-be.

We all have stories like this. I have some doozies about men I encountered as a theater critic, some funny, some not-so-funny. The other day, in my barn, while looking for things that would help me construct a timeline for what happened to me at The New Yorker, I found a letter sent me by a former top-editor at The Wall Street Journal after he’d published a piece I’d written for his page. It ends, “I hope you’ll think of us when next you breathe in short pants (not Bermudas!)” All over America women are going into their barns and closets and photo boxes, the places in their minds where they’ve stored things away, and finding things connected with stories about the unbelievable things that men do. They’re all different, and yet they’re all the same.

Tweeden is telling hers because it’s about a famous person and because she has a platform. That’s why the journalists and Hollywood actresses are telling theirs. But just as the button under Matt Lauer’s desk is a metonym for abuse of power, the stories of the women victimized by famous men are metonymous for the hundreds of thousands of women whose victimizers aren’t famous or important, women who can’t share their stories because they may not know how to articulate them or because they don’t have a platform or a high-profile job: secretaries and receptionists, women in minimum-wage jobs or without jobs, immigrant woman who (as Anita Hill said on Meet The Press, on Sunday) “may fear coming out because of jeopardizing immigrant status,” women of color who (Hill again) “may be fearful of coming forward with their stories because they don’t want to embarrass people racially.” They might be an inconvenience.

Most of all, this is about those 17 women whose stories about the President of the United States Donald Trump’s lawyers say are irrelevant because he’s the President of the United States. This is about getting rid of Trump, who got voted into office by half a nation of enablers.

S o it’s fine to comfort your friend, Mr. Fineman and SNL ladies — if you feel that’s warranted. What you have to understand is that what you’re saying with your public statements and testimonials is that the women coming forward with these stories just aren’t important. They’re an inconvenience.

And we get it. This is tough stuff, and it’s putting us through hell. We all have loved ones, colleagues, former colleagues, heroes, idols, and mentors in this crowd. This actor changed your life. That comedian was a great influence on you. Another fellow is someone you worked with and respected. It’s immensely complicated and you have no way of processing it. And you’re sick of it — already. Sick of the stories, sick of the ugliness, sick of how bewildering it all is and what an impossible position each one of these cases puts us all in.

Well, you know what? Welcome to our world. Now you know what women have been dealing with for years, decades, centuries. And I’m afraid you have to do what we did: deal with it. Because these stories are going to keep coming, and they need to be told, because they’re important — however inconvenient they may be. They’re important. All of them.

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